A Week in Books: We need writers, not riders, on the box

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The Independent Culture

An elderly literary critic writes a short memoir of his beloved wife, an academic philosopher who took to writing densely symbolic novels. When the reprint arrives (John Bayley's Iris, from Abacus), it comes with a blurb that shouts: "Now a major Hollywood film starring Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench". You can accuse the mainstream film industry of a multitude of sins against contemporary literature and its creators: lousy scripts, worse casting, flagrant distortion, missing the point on a heroic scale. (Or else mutter, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin".) Yet you can hardly object that the moguls pay no attention.

The coming season will witness not merely Iris but also the films of Graham Swift's Last Orders, Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, Nick Hornby's About a Boy and Sebastian Faulks's Charlotte Gray. Whether it fashions diamonds or duds, the world's brashest business still manages to suck plenty of living authors into its seething maw. When Brian O'Doherty's The Deposition of Father McGreevy turned up on the Booker shortlist, a company even scanned that for its cinematic potential. No one had alerted it that the sheep do things you never saw in Babe.

So: if Hollywood can make a fuss of modern writers, why can't British public-service television? 2001 proved another year in which TV plundered the literary past in search of status, yet failed to give much of a platform to authors who explore the way we really do live now.

Television, just as much as film, owes a vast debt to literature, but it prefers to pay the dead and not the living. True, Melvyn Bragg does what he can on his South Bank perch, as do the makers of one-off profiles that range from the superb (Arena on James Ellroy) to the soporific (ditto on Dirk Bogarde). But the failure to serve Britain's reading millions with a general TV show remains one of the great broadcasting betrayals of the past decade.

If controllers granted every thousand serious readers as much time as every thousand racing fans, we'd have wall-to-wall writers, not riders, on the box. Even Sky has done a more consistent job with its books programme of late than those channels financed by the blunt poll tax of the licence fee. And a note for Channel 4: if Oprah can run a hugely effective book club in the US, why can't Richard and Judy over here?

As for the BBC, at present all complaints about gaps in arts coverage are met by a knowing smile and the mystic mantra: "BBC 4." BBC Knowledge, the corporation's digital citadel of culture, will change its name and raise its profile this spring. For readers and writers, the shift brings one piece of very good news. Controller of BBC4 will be Roly Keating, not just the BBC's commissioning commissar for arts but a specialist in literary subjects. His early reputation rested on profiles of writers for Omnibus and Bookmark (which he edited).

Plenty of potential viewers – not to mention wavering supporters of the licence fee – will be expecting dedicated coverage of books in addition to sporadic big-name documentaries. The omens for 4 do look moderately good – if you can accept that, in an age of rising sales and audiences, cultural programmes belong in this digital ghetto. It's also a shame that the corporation conspires with the manufacturers to mis-describe services such as BBC4 as "free to air". They still require investment in a set-top box, or a new digital TV.

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